A Dark Matter by Peter Straub (2010): Peter Straub has been a fine writer of the supernatural for decades. A Dark Matter, though, is a dreadful piece of work. It’s structurally and metaphysically ambitious — I’ll give it that — but Straub’s reach has far exceeded his grasp here.
The only horror novel from a major writer I can think of that’s this bad in the same way is William Peter Blatty’s exhausting, overly precious Legion, with its dollar-store profundities and its precious little toe-dips into actual philosophy, religion, and cosmology.
Yes. Of a certain type of horror novel, from 35 years of reading horror novels, I can say this is the second worst one ever. No wonder it won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel of 2010 from the Horror Writers Guild. It must have stunned the voters into a stupor.
Back in 1966, a group of high-school and college students were taken in by figuratively and literally rambling guru Spencer Mallon. They did something in a meadow. One person died. One person disappeared. Everyone was changed forever. Now, the one member of this group of students who didn’t go into that meadow, novelist Lee Harwell, sets out to find out what really happened.
This isn’t an unusual set-up for a horror story — M. John Harrison’s great novella “The Great God Pan” similarly and far more evocatively deals with the aftermath of such a supernatural event decades later.
A Dark Matter, though…phew. Lots and lots of telling rather than showing (to cite one example, we’re endlessly and repeatedly told how everyone just absolutely loves “the wondrous Eel”, Lee Truax, Harwell’s 1966 girlfriend and 2009 wife, but her wondrousness is sparingly, parsimoniously, sketchily depicted).
We’re told how magnetic and amazing Spencer Mallon was and is, but given very little to convince us that he is magnetic and amazing beyond everyone’s love and adoration of him. And when we move into the more and more overtly supernatural…hoo boy. You’ll never look at that iconic painting of dogs playing poker the same way again, let’s just leave it at that. Or AstroTurf.
Silly, sketchy, ponderous, pretentious, pompous. Oh, and Lee Harwell, novelist and frame narrator, boy what a drag he is. He wears expensive shoes. He drinks expensive liquor. His horror novel once got him on the cover of Time magazine in the 1980’s. He’s a crashing bore who often repeats himself and doesn’t seem to be gifted with an editor who will actually edit anything. And there’s that wondrous Eel, doing nothing particularly wondrous until the very end. But she is so very wondrous, unlike this lousy novel. Not recommended.